3 Ways Anxiety Can Affect Decision Making (and What to Do)
How to make better decisions when you're anxious.
Posted Jun 07, 2019
Anxiety-prone people have some strengths and some weaknesses when it comes to decision making. When you understand the thinking processes involved, you can avoid potential traps, own your strengths, make better choices, and feel more confident.
1. Two sides of the same coin: Considering too few options vs. overthinking.
One of the ironies of anxiety is that it can create behavior patterns that, on the surface, seem like opposites. Here's an example of this.
Scenario 1: When it comes to small decisions, you might find yourself researching many options looking for the perfect one. For instance, it's summer and you want to buy the perfect pool float and not regret your choice. You spend 30 minutes looking at different types, waffling over a $10 decision—and perhaps you even end up asking someone else's opinion on an extremely minor choice.
Scenario 2: On the other hand, for major decisions, your anxiety might be so big that you find yourself contemplating a decision for a long time, but you're too overwhelmed by your emotions to actually look into the options that are available. For instance, you think about looking at wedding venues for a long time, but don't actually look at any. When you do start to look at venues, you might find you have fewer to select from because you've started late. Alternatively, when you do start researching your actual options, the extreme anxiety that is generated by that process may make you want to just pick one of the first ones you see so you can escape from what you're finding a very aversive experience. The problem is that this approach can end up combining the worst of rushing-in and of overthinking.
Try: If you're going to spend excessive time on very minor decisions, make sure you've taken care of the big stuff first. When it comes to big decisions, consider dividing your search into two parts: an initial phase in which you survey your options to see what's available but commit to not deciding on anything, and a second phase when you choose based on the knowledge you've gained in the first phase. The gist of this approach is that when you're in the second phase, you should choose any option that's better than the best option you reviewed during the first phase. There's some math behind the ideal way to structure this and how long your survey phase should be (see this YouTube video and the associated book).
2. Being too scared to ask about your concerns.
Here's another catch-22 with anxiety: Anxiety makes us think about threats and everything that could go wrong. Anxiety can help bring potentially valid concerns to mind, but it can also lead to being too scared to talk about those concerns. Anxious people often fear outright rejection if they attempt to ask about an issue they're worried about. This can be especially consequential when it comes to decisions related to health, finance, law, education, and other big areas of life.
If you're too nervous to voice your concerns, you miss out on the opportunity to potentially get reassurance. You also miss out on a potential opportunity to make someone else aware of a problem they haven't thought of, but could perhaps handle better if it were on their radar. Asking good questions can also be a way to get respect from others when they see you're diligent in your thought processes. Being vigilant to what could go wrong is a strength that anxious people have, but not if you just bury your concerns.
Try: Acknowledge that sometimes other people will react badly if you raising concerns triggers a defensive reaction. However, this isn't the only possibility. Raising concerns can lead to reassurance, keeping other people on their toes, and gaining respect when other people recognize you as an independent thinker. All of these outcomes are possibilities, not just negative scenarios.
3. Ramped up anxiety can make you feel cognitively impaired.
When I was preparing for my final exams (over ten years ago now), a wise mentor gave the advice to expect that, during the oral exam, the anxiety of the situation would lead to being able to think about 25 percent less well than usual. To some extent, this is a number plucked out of thin air, but it conveys the gist that anxiety won't cause you to completely lose your mind, but it will disrupt your thinking. During periods of high anxiety, my brain often feels like I've had a couple of drinks at lunch—not in the disinhibited sense, but in the sense of feeling less clear-headed and more error-prone.
The solution for the exam situation was simple—overprepare a bit and, and during the exam, take some slow breaths and pause to mentally step back before rushing into answers. This ensured the pressure to get an answer out didn't lead to missing an important aspect of the question that the examiners wanted to see considered.
Try: In my life now, whenever I'm working on big decisions, I often make really silly mistakes throughout the day. For instance, when I unpack groceries, I'll mindlessly put items in the freezer that don't go in the freezer! The main coping technique I use is to be more patient with myself when I'm struggling to concentrate on details, and to split tasks that require concentration but are anxiety-provoking into small chunks. Another thing I do is forgive myself when I do something I feel embarrassed about, like when I realize I've asked a stupid question.
When you acknowledge that very high anxiety will impair your thinking a bit, you can work around it, without fear of being completely incapacitated by anxiety.
It sounds strange to say, but anxiety isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can feel intense at times, but when you have good knowledge about anxiety and strategies that work for you, you can learn not to fear it.